5 Geniuses Who Renounced Their Work

It’s tough being brilliant. It’s even tougher when you hate your own masterpieces.

1. Tony Kaye
The Forgotten History of American History X

Before director Tony Kaye embarked on his first feature film, 1997’s American History X, he’d already been declared a genius of the advertising world. Kaye was famous for taking months to craft the perfect 30-second commercial, and his meticulousness only bolstered his reputation. Top brands including Guinness and Volvo sought out his services, because he was just that good.

But Kaye was more than a perfectionist; he was an egoist and an eccentric. During a period of unemployment in the mid-1980s, Kaye ran a full-page ad in London’s Evening Standard proclaiming, “Tony Kaye is the Greatest English Director Since Hitchcock.” He also attempted to start his own art movement, which included an “exhibition” of a homeless man in London’s Tate Gallery.

So, perhaps it should come as no surprise that American History X turned out the way it did. Studio execs at New Line Cinema were impressed by the concept behind Kaye’s pitch—to create a film about a former skinhead who tries to keep his younger brother from following in his footsteps. But after shooting 200 hours of footage and delivering a rough cut to the producers, Kaye still wasn’t satisfied with the movie. He wanted to tweak the storytelling, and the studio agreed to give him another eight weeks to complete the project.

During those two months, Kaye did virtually no editing. Instead, he went to a Caribbean island to consult with poet Derek Walcott, who plied the director with a few vague ideas about how to improve the film. Upon returning, Kaye decided to add in footage of actual neo-Nazis, but he had no idea how long that would take. Exasperated, the studio execs eventually pried the movie out of Kaye’s hands, and New Line released an earlier cut of the film.

At that point, Tony Kaye lost it. He sued the studio for $200 million and demanded that Humpty Dumpty be credited as the director. He also spent $100,000 on print ads that trashed the movie. In interviews, he badmouthed the script and claimed that actor Edward Norton had been wrong for the lead role. Yet in spite of Kaye’s insistence that the movie was horrible, American History X went on to garner terrific reviews—not to mention a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Edward Norton.

2. W.H. Auden
The Poem That Wouldn’t Die

W.H. Auden’s best-known poem, “September 1, 1939,” was written the day that Germany invaded Poland, launching World War II. From the moment it was published in The New Republic that year, the work was instantly popular—but Auden wanted to revise it. He thought parts of the poem rang false. He especially hated its most famous line: “We must love one another or die.” Auden later reflected, “That’s a damned lie! We must die anyway.” So in the next version of his poem, Auden altered the text to read, “We must love one another and die.”

Even after making the change, Auden continued to despise the line. In subsequent versions, he resorted to cutting the entire stanza, and eventually decided he wanted to do away with the piece altogether: “The whole poem, I realized, was infected with an incurable dishonesty—and must be scrapped.”

To Auden’s dismay, people kept reading and quoting “September 1, 1939.” The poet was particularly irritated when President Lyndon Johnson used the poem in his 1964 “Daisy” TV spot attacking opponent Barry Goldwater. The ad featured a little girl plucking petals off a flower, as the image of a nuclear explosion emerges behind her. As the mushroom cloud balloons to fill the screen, President Johnson says in a voiceover, “We must either love each other, or we must die.”

After seeing the ad, Auden said, “I pray that I never be memorable like that again.”

3. Frederic Remington
The Way the West Was Lost

Decades before the movies of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, Frederic Remington’s illustrations created the mythic American West. During the 1880s and 1890s, readers devoured his depictions of grizzled cowboys and sinewy horses, reproduced by the hundreds in magazines and books. He illustrated Teddy Roosevelt’s Ranch Life and the Hunting-Trail in 1887 and was a correspondent during the Spanish-American War in 1898.

But the artist wasn’t much of a cowboy himself. Born in New York, Remington went to art school at Yale, where he spent more time playing football than studying his craft. At age 19, he headed out West for a few years, visiting Montana and New Mexico and even making a go of sheep ranching in Kansas. However, he found the work difficult and tedious and soon returned home to New York, where he lived for most of his life.

While his experiences on the frontier inspired his most famous works, Remington grew tired of painting crowd-pleasing cowboy scenes year after year. He wanted his work to become more abstract and expressive. He even began branching out into sculpture. But the public wasn’t interested in his experiments in modernism; his cowboy paintings were paying the bills.

On January 25, 1908, Remington became so frustrated while painting a particularly tricky scene that he decided to burn the canvas. He built a bonfire on his front lawn and torched the unfinished painting; then he proceeded to toss his other work into the flames. He ended up destroying more than 100 paintings that night, with millions of dollars in art going up in smoke. “They will never confront me in the future,” he wrote.

Indeed they didn’t. Remington’s sculptures became his most lasting work. Today, one of his bronzes, “Bronco Buster,” sits next to President Obama in the Oval Office.

4. R. Crumb
Drowning His Own Kitten

Indie cartoonist Robert Crumb became famous in the 1960s for his cast of raunchy characters, including Mr. Natural and the “Keep on Truckin’” guys. But his best-known creation was the smooth-talking, sex-crazed Fritz the Cat. Ballantine Books published a paperback collection of Fritz’ tales in 1969, and a copy ended up with animator Ralph Bakshi. An up-and-coming genius in his own right, Bakshi was looking to make an animated movie for adults, and Fritz seemed like perfect source material.

When Bakshi approached Crumb with a movie deal, the cartoonist waffled. He’d lost interest in Fritz years ago, but he also didn’t want to turn down Bakshi. To avoid making a choice, Crumb left the decision up to his wife, who thought both the film and the immediate paycheck were good ideas.

It turned out that Crumb had good reason to be hesitant. Bakshi didn’t feel obligated to stay true to the original work, and he used Fritz as a vehicle to voice his own views—depicting hippies as would-be fascists, embracing toilet humor, and including unexplained violence. Bakshi presented the material as an attack on the 1960s—a decade that had been very good to Crumb.

When Crumb previewed the finished film, he was appalled. The politics were bad enough, but in Crumb’s words, the toilet humor suggested a “real repressed” attitude toward sex. It was too late to change anything, though, and Fritz the Cat was released in theaters. The first animated film with an X rating, Fritz became a hot topic and earned massive amounts of publicity. Bakshi, for his part, was hailed as a breath of fresh air in the field of animation.

But Crumb got his revenge. A few months after the movie’s release, he drew a comic titled “The Death of Fritz the Cat,” in which he killed the character with an ice pick to the head. The cat was finished, and Crumb refused all future adaptations of his work.

5. Ludwig van Beethoven
Turning a Deaf Ear

In addition to being a brilliant composer, Ludwig van Beethoven was a shrewd businessman. He dedicated most of his work to wealthy benefactors, with the hope that they’d keep giving him money. But in the early 1800s, Beethoven decided to shift his strategy and honor the man he admired the most—Napoleon Bonaparte. Beethoven believed in the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution, and he saw Napoleon as a charismatic leader who was making a real effort to reform government. In 1803, the star-struck composer named his third symphony the “Bonaparte” symphony.

Of course, when Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor of France in May 1804, Beethoven was horrified. The composer ripped apart the title page to his symphony, yelling, “Now, too, he will tread underfoot all the rights of man, and indulge only his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others, and become a tyrant!”

After cooling off a little, the composer decided that the symphony was still good, but he changed the title. He renamed it the “Eroica” symphony, dedicating it to a generic “heroic man.” The passionate work is still one of Beethoven’s most-performed pieces. To this day, the library of Vienna’s Musikverein concert hall keeps an original copy of the composition on display—complete with Napoleon’s name violently scratched out.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

10 Facts About Aspirin

Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.


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